MEMORIES OF A TAURINE PILGRIMAGE: FRED HOCHBERG, RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ AND ME by Mario Carrión

One day in May in the year 1990 upon opening my mail I found an invitation to attend the 'First Annual International Taurine Tertulia'. It was to be held at Staunton, Virginia, "the Taurine Capital of the World" on June15, 16 and 17. Fred Hochberg, "El Excelentísimo", signed it. I did not know the sender then, and claim that a Virginian town was 'the capital of the taurine world' made me think that the invitation was a joke. Nevertheless, the invitation was real, and it was part of Fred Hochberg's plan not to convert Staunton into the capital of the taurine world, as tongue in cheek he had claimed in the invitation, but to bring some taurine aficionados and some of his professional friends to Staunton, where this California aficionado would live, for physical reasons until the end of his life.

A few days later my good friend Jim Toland, then President of the Peña Taurina of Maryland, called to encourage me to participate in the Tertulia. He offered to take me and our mutual friend, Frenchman 'practico' René Arneodau, to Staunton. I was uncommitted, but a couple of days later Fred followed up the invitation with a phone call, and he convinced me not only to attend the Tertulia, but to give a demonstration of 'toreo de salón' there. Obviously, he was sure that I would accept his invitation since he informed me that René would be helping me with the demonstration. This was my first lesson in learning the subtle ways used by Fred to pursue his causes. He was a natural motivator since, in addition to obtaining my collaboration in his tertulia, at the end of our conversation I felt that I had gained a good friend.

Before going on with the story, let me say something about this unique aficionado. I quote from an editorial eulogizing Fred that appeared in the magazine LA BUSCA of the Taurine Bibliophiles of America, that says: "The statistics of Fred's life will fill seven column inches in Who's Who in the World: Chief Accountant; Vice President; General Manager; Chairman; Councilman; Mayor; Man of the Year; President, Los Aficionado de Los Angeles 1980-83, 1987-88; President, National Association of Taurine Clubs 1982-85…but statistics provide no real measure of the man. Only those whose lives were touched by Fred's immense presence can do that. And many were touched.". I may add to his statistics that Fred was one of the best, most knowledgeable, and passionate aficionados I ever met, as well as a good ambassador of bullfighting in America until the end of his life.

"El Excelentisimo" had lived most of his life in Southern California, the most taurine corner in the United States, and he had been an active leader in anything to do with taurine matters in that zone, and he also extended his activities to the taurine world in Mexico. Then this active man was stricken by one of those illnesses that put you in a wheel chair and slowly sap the energy of your muscles until it kills you. He was forced to leave Southern California when he was no longer able to take care of himself, and moved to Staunton, where his loving daughter Ann May lived, so she could help him. Therefore, he left behind tertulias, club activities, his fellow-aficionados as well as his trips to Mexico to visit matadors, bull breeders and other taurine friends, and his attendance at tientas and corridas. Consequently, he found himself, confined to a wheelchair and unable to travel freely, anchored in a town that was a taurine desert. Any other aficionado would have been content with watching videos of corridas, reading taurine books and occasionally communicating with some aficionados. But not "El Excelentisimo", who soon decided that since he could not go to the taurine world, he would bring it to Staunton, and was what he did, with the consent and invaluable help of his daughter Ann. He took the first step with the organization of the "First Annual International Taurine Tertulia" in 1990.

A few hours after leaving Maryland, Jim, René and I arrived in Staunton to join about twenty other aficionados the evening of June 15. Those aficionados came from New York, Boston, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles with the sole purpose of talking about tauromaquia and being with Fred. This in itself was an accomplishment. The Tertulia was a success, as we were saying good-bye to Fred, he announced that the 'Second Invitational International Tertulia' would be held in the summer of 1991, and that we were all 'invited'. Fred had a way with promotional words, and now he added the word 'invitational' to the name of the event to increase its appeal. This second tertulia had even greater success than the first, since more aficionados attended and more activities took place. The presence of the Mexican bull breeder Manuel Cortina Pizarro, accompanied by his cousin diplomat Miguel Cuenca Cortina, and French reporter and taurine bibliophile Miguel Darrieumerlou, and 'practico' René Arneodau made the tertulia truly international.

In the fall of the same year my friend Jim Toland, a professional pilot, flew me to Staunton in a small plane he was testing, to spend the day with Fred. When we arrived at Fred' s home he was on the phone talking to matador David Silveti. Fred passed the phone to me and we introduced ourselves. We talked generalities as people do in awkward situations, then he said good-by with "Mario, we will probably meet in Aguascalientes next year…". I was puzzled by this but did not say anything. We spent a few hours with Fred and 'mano a mano' we talked about our common passion, the tauromaquia. I was able to appreciate the depth of his knowledge and experience. He talked as matter of factly of his Mexican friends, the Silvetis, the Cortina Pizarros, as he did about the great stars of the 50's, Rafael Rodriguez, Humberto Moro, and Juan Silveti, who were his friends. Then he said "you will meet them on the 'Peregrinación'," using the Spanish word for pilgrimage. Then he enthusiastically stated his plan. "I am organizing a taurine trip to Aguascalinentes. We will stay at 'Chinampa', the Cortina Pizarro's ranch for one week". He went on to outline the details of his plan and, probably to arouse my interest, he added, "you would enjoy fighting some calves with some of my matador friends". I told him that deliberately I had not even fought a mosquito for 33 years, and that I was not interested in doing it now, since I was sure I had forgotten how to do it. I rationalized that one thing is to make a demonstration of toreo, to give conferences and to write about it, and it was quite another thing to fight a live animal, regardless of its size. Furthermore I told him that I would feel uneasy to fight with retired maestros who still were fighting in festivals and tentaderos from time to time, while I had not done it for years. We continued conversing, and before we realized it it was time to take our leave and fly back to Maryland before darkness set in.

I had forgotten about 'La Pergrinación' because I never thought that Fred, given his deteriorating physical condition, could undertake such a pilgrimage. Again I misjudged his strong will since, in April 1992 I received a formal invitation to the '1992 Pergrinación to the Taurine International Tertulia' with a detailed program attached.

Obviously, Fred knew how to interpret when a 'no' means 'yes', because on June 22, 1992 I found myself, along with another dozen pilgrims in 'Chinampa' enjoying the hospitality of Manuel Cortina Pizarro and his family, and ready to participate in several unforgettable taurine activities.

"El Excelentisimo" was in his environment, and notwithstanding all taurine personalities that appeared during the week, Fred was always the center of attention. He was standing tall in his wheelchair. For those people he was no a visiting gringo aficionado, but a respected and beloved friend. On Wednesday June 23, we spent the day at 'Chinampas'. In the morning a few calves were tested at the ranch's bullring. Rafael Rodriguez and Humbero Moro, two of the greater stars of Mexican tauromaquia of the 50's were there as well as active matadors Humberto Moro Jr. and Hector de Granada. Rafael did not fight but Humberto gave a lesson on how naturales should be done. David Silveti, who was supposed to be at the tienta, could not make it, since he was in his way to fight in a corrida. Nevertheless he stopped by after the tienta to greet Fred and to socialize with us for a while. At this tienta, for the first time in 33 years I fought two brave heifers, and to my surprise I did it well. The timing and the know-how were still there. I walked over to Fred and thanked him, since he had created the conditions under which I was 'forced' to do what I most wanted and had avoided until then. Two days later I fought two Pepe Garfia calves at 'Santiago' Ranch, and have continued testing calves in tientas, mainly in California, from time to time since then. This is how I became one of those 'whose lives were touched by Fred's immense presence', as my quote from LA BUSCA stated.

I will not tire the readers describing the many other great experiences we had on the Mexican pilgrimage, such as the visit to the "La Punta" Ranch, where our host, bull breeder Carlos Madrazo, gave a talk about the history of his ganaderia. Nonetheless, I will close these memories relating the visit to Rafael Rodriguez "Lesdesma" Ranch, where we were invited for lunch.

Matador Rafael Rodriguez does not need introduction, since any aficionado knows that he was one the most important figuras in the 50's, which is known in Mexico as the 'Tauromaquia Silver Era', because of the many excellent matadors who fought during those years. He was born in Aguascalientes on August 21. 1926. Rafael took his alternativa in Mexico City on December 21, 1948 from Silverio Perez, and he confirmed it in Madrid on May 16, 1951 from Pepe Luis Vazquez. He was a great a star until he retired to his home city to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. Sometime during those years Rafael and Fred became good friends, and the maestro, who was an amateur poet, wanted to tell Fred in verse how he felt about his friend. After lunch we had an impromptu fiesta, and before its conclusion the Mexican matador read a poem that he had composed in Spanish for his friend, an American aficionado. One of the attendees was the poet laureate and distinguished professor of American literature Donald Junkins, who offered to write and English interpretation of Rafael's poem, so everyone present could appreciate Rafael's feelings. Don, with my help in translating the literal meaning of the Spanish words since I am no poet and he did not speak Spanish, wrote in just a few minutes an inspired English interpretation of the original poem. Both interpretations follow:

PEREGRINO TAURINO

La vaca con su mujir
el toro con su bramido,
del becerro, el corretear
y del caballo el relincho.

En un tibio amanecer
un amanecer taurino
despertaron en su ser
el corazón peregrino.

Peregrino del amor
hombre cabal y sencillo
alberga en su corazón
su gran amor revivido.
Nunca abandonó la senda,
sigue firme en su camino.

¿Cuánto vive en su soñar?
¿Cuánto?…quisiera decirlo.
Solo sé que estás ahí,
solo como un árbol
!en su sitio!

¿Cuántas plazas recorrió?
¿Cuántas vivió en su rito?
Viven en su corazón solo
Fred podrá decirlo.

Los ganaderos,
los toreros, tus amigos;
el cielo azul,
la montaña,
y el solm
cual mudo testigo,
se entrelazan y te abrazan
fiel amigo peregrino.

Bienvenido amigo Fred,
árbol que sigue en su sitio.

A TAURINE PILGRIMAGE

From the cow with her mooing
to the bull with his bellowing,
from the calf with his skittering
to the horse with his neighing.

In a warm taurine dawning
his heart leaped up
to a pilgrimage of love; a whole man
with a real man's simplicity,

his heart where a great love returns,
toreo, where the past is present,
where he keeps the way.
How much do you live when dreaming?

How much I would like to say it.
I know only that you are here
like a tree fixed where its seed opened.

How many bullrings have you known?
How many taurine rituals are inside you?
How can we count the toro truths in your heart?

Only Fred can speak these things;
the bullbreeders,
the cows,
the bullfighters, your friends,
the blue sky,
the mountain,
the sun which is the witness,

all these embrace my friend of faith,
Fred, pilgrim---welcome,
tree still in your place!

Back in the States, "El Excelentisimo" held another tertulia in Straunton on the middle of August, and many of his friends attended as well as some new local aficionados. I have forgotten to mention that Fred also had been doing missionary work converting natives to the tauromaquia faith in Staunton. He had presented conferences showed bullfighting videos in schools and clubs, and he was even teaching a couple of youngsters how to fight bull. For some of us the summer tertulias were becoming a ritual. Fred had fulfilled what seemed an impossible goal. We had a great time at the tertulia, but I was saddened in observing Fred. He was almost absent, his voice was almost gone and he looked very tired. Obviously, he was happy to have us there, but he, who was a natural conversationalist, remained silent, and he, an enthusiastic master of ceremonies, was not leading his show. I felt that this tertulia was anticlimactic for him; he had had his swan song at the 'Perenigración' in Mexico.

I spoke with him a few more times after the tertulia, but our conversations became more and more difficult; his voice was just a whisper. On July 24, 1993 Gil Arruda, Vice President of Taurine Bibliophiles of America, who had attended the tertulias at Staunton along with another several members of his club, called me to inform me that Fred had died the day before. "El Excelentisimo" was 80 years old. Matador Rafael Rodriguez died three months after Fred, on October 16, at the age of 67. They probably are now in a taurine heaven, and I do not have doubt that if that is the case Fred, upon seeing his friend, invited and persuaded him to attend the 'First Celestial Tertulia' he was organizing.

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